Pangolins are elusive, nocturnal mammalian anteaters marked by large, hardened overlapping plate-like scales, which are comparable to a pinecone.
The scales also can be processed into medicine – a trait that makes the creature a central figure in an illegal smuggling operation.
And now, scientists believe, the illicit poaching of the pangolin has also played a role in the global coronavirus pandemic. The virus was discovered in the remains of smuggled pangolins recently in Southern China “wet markets”, where many consumers purchase meat and medicinal products.
“Pangolins should be considered as possible hosts in the emergence of novel coronaviruses and should be removed from wet markets,” wrote the authors of a paper published recently in the science journal Nature.
Since the outbreak, there have been frantic efforts to determine possible animal intermediary hosts involved in the transmission of the virus to humans.
A 2017 study found that a majority of emerging infectious diseases are “zoonotic”, which means they are passed on from animals, mostly wildlife, as a result of interactions with people and wild animals. Reasons for this increase include the illegal trade and humans encroaching into wildlife areas.
Initial studies suggested that the COVID-19 virus emerged from a colony of horseshoe bats in Yunnan, a province in China, with snakes as the intermediate host that passed it on to humans. This assertion was however criticized, seeing as there is no evidence that coronaviruses can jump from cold-blooded creatures such as snakes to humans.
The recent study, however, indicates that there may be parallels to draw between the 2002-2003 Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) and the 2012 Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS) outbreaks, with the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.
According to the study, coronaviruses almost genetically similar to the COVID-19 virus have been found in pangolins seized in anti-smuggling operations in China, which has birthed the theory that just like the masked palm civet cats did with SARS and the dromedary camel did with MERS; pangolins may have served as intermediate hosts for the COVID-19 virus.
The virus has so far infected over 4 million people and killed nearly 300,000 globally and its effects continue to be felt as the world makes efforts to curb its spread (check our COVID-19 tracking page for up to date numbers).
The poaching that might have aided this spread was already wreaking havoc on the pangolin population.
There are eight pangolin species. Four are native to 15 African countries where they can be found in woodlands and savannas that are within reach of water, while the other four can be found across Asia. They have an estimated life span of up to 20 years.
Closer home, in Kenya, they are locally known as ‘KakaKuona’ in Swahili, while in Nigeria, their local name in Yoruba is aika, arika or akika.
Sadly, the pangolin holds the world record for the most trafficked mammal, followed closely by elephants. Of even greater interest is that this illegal trade, which is being fuelled by key market sources from African countries such as Nigeria and the Democratic Republic of Congo, may have played a role in the spread of COVID-19.
The International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Red List classifies all the 8 pangolin species as endangered, critically endangered or vulnerable, as their population continues to decrease due to habitat destruction, high poaching rates, and overexploitation. Their slow reproduction rate does not help the situation as well, seeing as female pangolins usually bare only one offspring annually.
Two different organizations have been tracking the pangolin population. The Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) has followed the trade since 1977. In addition, TRAFFIC, an NGO focused on wildlife trade, has enumerated pangolin seizures and their products since 2016.
CITES was drafted to regulate trade in wildlife after it became evident that the unregulated trade in wild plants and animals whether alive or dead, as whole specimens or in parts, was contributing to the endangerment of species. The resolution that initiated the drafting of CITES was adopted in 1963 at an IUCN meet in Nairobi, Kenya.
The CITES data has trade records going back to 1977, and it shows the main source of the trade was mainly East Asia.
For decades, pangolin trading was tracked but all species were categorized as not being in danger of extinction. By 2000, wild-caught Asian species traded primarily for commercial purposes were put under a quota, though there were no limits to trapping and trading African pangolins.
That changed in 2016 when scientists argued that the African species had crossed a threshold making them a truly endangered animal. As a result of discussions at the 17th Conference of Parties (CoP) in Johannesburg, South Africa, pangolins were added to the list of animals covered by a complete import/export ban.
Leslie Olonyi, an environment and natural resources lawyer who has worked with both local and international NGO’s like IUCN and is currently at the Institute of Governance and Sustainable Development (IGSD), participated in formulating the Kenya country proposal and position for CITES 17th Conference (CITES CoP 17):
Courtesy of the conservation organization I worked for, I was part of the Kenya CITES technical committee in 2016 that made the proposal to list the four African pangolin species to Appendix I, a proposal that was accepted at CITES CoP 17 in Johannesburg. The proposal was spearheaded by Kenya with support from Angola, Botswana, Chad, Côte d’Ivoire, Gabon, Guinea, Liberia, Nigeria, Senegal, South Africa, and Togo. The USA also supported this proposal at CITES CoP 17.
Despite the efforts to protect the pangolin, the trade appears not to be slowing down as fast as many would have hoped, as Olonyi puts it.
“Pangolin trade is illegal. There can only be a non-commercial exchange or movement of pangolins in rare circumstances like for purposes of scientific research. However, illegal wildlife trade provides an illicit market for pangolins and their derivative products like scales, leather, and meat. Pangolin scales are usually sold as traditional medicine and pangolin meat trade mostly takes place illegally in Chinese/Vietnamese wet markets. These are markets where live domestic and wild animals are sold including meat of both wild and domestic animals. Unscrupulous traders sell pangolin meat and other endangered species covertly in these markets that are poorly regulated by market inspectors. Some Chinese provincial governments are not strictly enforcing the laws against illegal trade/sale of wildlife in their provinces.”
The interactive map below shows imports and exports as recorded on the CITES database which includes 37% of transactions from confiscated or seized specimens.
Select the product you would want to study on the drop-down menu and then press play on the slider to see the list of the business routes. You can touch/point the arrow and move around the globe for more detail. If you click on the black line, you can see the amounts that were moved from one country to another.
Visualisation by Purity Mukami
The increased demand has been attributed to various priced uses that have been widely accepted throughout history. The terms used to describe the trade items are named differently with the most popular trade items being scales, skins and leather products, meat, specimens, live pangolins, and derivatives.
Their scales, fetuses, bones, claws, and blood are a popular ingredient in traditional Chinese medicine, believed to treat cancer, inflammation and other ailments.
The leading importers of scales have been China, Hong Kong, Singapore, and the US.
Hongkong and Singapore mainly act as transition points. The scales were being used by traditional Chinese clinics in the US. They are sometimes disguised in herbal medicine such that the ordinary American wouldn’t know that the Chinese named ingredient in the herbal product he/she is buying is actually a pangolin scale. Perhaps this calls for improved surveillance by the US Food and Drug Administration, FDA.
Between 1994 and 2018, exporters reported 30 tons of scales while importers reported 57 tons. A good number of these scales were exported from African countries.
The only instance that Kenya was reported as an exporter of scales was in 2007 with the United Kingdom as the destination. In 2013, Uganda and Togo exported scales to Vietnam and Hong Kong respectively and in the same year exported over 700 kilograms of scales to the US.
It seems like since these Asian countries were already trading with the Americans, they were not only getting these products from Africa and other countries for local use, but also for sale to the US.
In 2014 and 2016, Uganda exported tons of the scales to China. By 2015, Congo was the main source of scales for exports from Africa.
Onwards to 2016, Africa was the main source for scales sold in China and Hong Kong with Burundi joining the list of exporters. Even after the ban in 2017, Congo and Burundi exported over 5,000 kilograms of scales each to China and Hong Kong.
The US, on the other hand, allowed imports of scales from Belgium, Thailand and Laos in 2018, knowing well the growing threat on pangolin populations across the world.
Skins and Leather Products
Finished products made from pangolin skins include shoes and belts.
As is evident from the map, before 2000, the US was a major importer of pangolin skins, which were used to make exotic leather cowboy boots.
Large leather products were being exported to Japan from the US as early as 1998. In the 2000s, this kind of trade was between the US and the Philippines or Mexico.
From CITES data, the US is the country that has reported having imported the highest number of pangolin bodies across the world. Some countries did not report the amount of trade. In the years before 1999, their main source was from Asian countries such as Thailand, Vietnam, Singapore and the Philippines and from Africa, Cameroon.
Other African countries such as Djibouti and Gabon would also export to Europe where they would in turn be exported to the US. 10 years later, the US would import the bodies from Ghana and Nigeria.
West African countries would either export the pangolins to the US or to European countries such as France and Portugal.
Pangolin meat is considered a delicacy in parts of China and Vietnam. Its consumption can also be considered a symbol of status in some high-end restaurants. In some parts of Africa, pangolins are sold as a form of bushmeat, for ritual and spiritual purposes and use in traditional African medicine.
Until 2008, the US was importing pangolin meat from East Asia. In previous years, the imports were from Thailand and Laos.
But in 2009 and some years up to 2017, African countries such as Ghana, Liberia, Cote d’ Ivoire, Cameroon, Togo, Nigeria and France became the main exporters to the US.
Togo has been exporting lots of live animals to the US, Italy, Japan, Vietnam among others since 1996. Other African exporters are Cote d’ Ivoire, Nigeria, the Democratic Republic of Congo and Benin.
From the CITES database, all these products are either from pangolins hunted in the wild, seized at borders and ports by customs officials while they are being smuggled, bred or born in captivity, ranched specimens and from unknown sources. This could have been legal or illegal.
To see the sources and uses on the wheel, touch/point on the source and use the drop-down menu to study a specific year.
Entries between 1977 and 1990 (in blue) which constitutes 37 % of the CITES dataset of traded pangolins did not indicate the source of the products. Also note that those zeros do not mean no business took place, but that the importer did not indicate the amounts involved.
From the wheel above, it is evident that skins have had the highest demand and the majority was reported to have been from the wild. Also, each of the items has different units of measure. For instance, scales and skins are denoted in kilograms while medicine may be in millilitres but at times not indicated. Live animals are the total body counts.
When you click on the seized or intercepted leg of the wheel above, it is interesting to note that those intercepted are either described mostly as derivatives, medicine or scales.
In 2017 and 2018, the majority of the reported cases were seizures reported to be for medicinal use. All the leading amounts were seized while moving from Vietnam to the US in both years.
China is big on the medicinal use of pangolins. The Chinese pharmacopoeia (an official compendium of drugs containing a list of medicinal drugs with their effects and directions for use) includes pangolin scales as an ingredient in traditional Chinese medicine formulae.
Some of these uses date back to the Tang dynasty (682 CE) when a recipe for expelling evil spirits was made from pangolin scales. The idea that the scales could also stimulate milk secretion in lactating women, one of the most important uses to-date, was recommended in 752 CE.
Though there is no credible scientific evidence to support these claims and their medical efficacy, other uses of pangolin scales today include unblocking blood clots, promoting blood circulation, treating gynaecological diseases, helping with anorexia and skin infections, and treating blockages of the fallopian tubes to cure infertility.
The sale and purchase of pangolins is however prohibited under China’s Wild Animal Protection Law, except if used for scientific research, captive breeding and in traditional Chinese medicine. Much of this trade is illegal as regulations issued in 2007 by China restricted the use of pangolin scales to clinical applications at certain hospitals only. Similarly, only as many as 209 medical companies are licensed to use the species in the manufacture of patented Chinese medicine.
Such regulations are what critics say provide loopholes for wide use of pangolin derivatives, while some argue that any use of pangolins should be abolished if the species is to be salvaged.
Given that Asian pangolin populations were declining, and the supply was unable to meet the demand, especially in China and Vietnam, there has been a proportional market shift to the African pangolins being trafficked to supply the Asian market.
Prior to 2008, there were no known records of pangolins being trafficked from Africa to Asia. A major factor among others facilitating this shift is the growing economic ties between the two continents as Olonyi explains.
“Pangolins in Asia were being decimated before that period, as a result, their populations drastically declined, and attention gradually turned to trade in African pangolins. Restrictions on Asian pangolin trade were introduced and even more attention shifted to African pangolins. Poaching of African pangolins rose dramatically with their derivatives like scales being exported since pangolins at the time lacked strict international protection under Appendix II of CITES. This rise also coincides with China’s growing activities in Africa. On the domestic legal front, pangolins also did not have robust protection under most national wildlife laws of African countries.”
Illegal trade of pangolins appears rampant and Olonyi warns that it is usually not easy to determine the real value on any illegal trade.
“It’s always difficult to put an exact amount on any illegal trade because what is intercepted or caught by authorities is usually but a fraction of the ongoing illegal trade. A lot more or maybe lower illegal trade may be happening undetected. One may draw inferences on how big the trade is from the large and high market value seizures made in the different ports. The UN in 2016 estimated that illegal wildlife trade as a whole was between 7 and 23 billion dollars. Illegal wildlife trade is also estimated to be the fourth largest global crime after drug trafficking, human trafficking, and illegal arms trade.”
From 2010 to 2015, cross-border pangolin seizures saw a combined minimum of 120 tons of whole pangolins, parts, and scales being confiscated by law enforcement agencies.
A comprehensive research published by TRAFFIC and IUCN in December 2017 highlighted the global nature of the trade, implicating 67 countries/territories. The smugglers were said to be using 27 new global routes and Europe was identified as a major transit hub for African pangolins being transported to Asia. The Netherlands had the largest quantity of shipments of body parts and scales from China and Uganda respectively.
We further tallied 631 seizure incidents between 2016-2019 from TRAFFIC, with African countries being the major exporters despite the ban.
At least 253,000 kilograms of pangolin scales were seized while on transit, with approximately 8 in 10 incidents having originated from Africa and the rest coming from China and Indonesia.
Nigeria, in particular, accounted for the highest number of seizures, making it a global pangolin scale export hub.
The other products seized included live pangolins, skins, and meat. However, it would be difficult to substantiate how much trade has managed to bypass the officials from the above trading activities.
The latest seizure was in the month of April 2020 in Malaysia, at a port outside the capital, Kuala Lumpur, where 6 tons of pangolin scales were impounded inside a container along with a shipment of cashew nuts.
According to Olonyi, the people who normally poach pangolins in Africa are locals who live in areas adjacent to or where pangolins are found, and then transnational organized crime takes over. He supports this with three general scenarios:
1. In a few African countries, there are communities that eat pangolin meat. The scales and other byproducts are then collected and sold to middlemen who comprise of Asian expatriates or a few well-connected locals. Bear in mind most seizures from Africa are of pangolin scales, skins, and not necessarily meat.
2. In countries where pangolin meat is not consumed, the pangolins are poached again by local networks and sold to middlemen. The middlemen then organize how the pangolin's scales will be smuggled onward to the markets in Asia.
3. A mix of scenario 1 and 2:
The trafficking chain gets more sophisticated at the middleman – to – exporting level and involves corrupt government and port officials as efforts to ship large amounts of the pangolin products to Asia are made. It’s basically transnational organized crime. The main kingpins behind the trade are usually based in Asia and control the sale and distribution of the products there. The pangolins and pangolin byproducts and derivatives increase in price considerably once they arrive in Asia. They’re bought dirt cheap in Africa and sold expensively in Asia. The rich middle class and upper class are the ones who afford to buy such illegal wildlife products in Asia like pangolin meat. Pangolin scales are widely used in traditional medicines in Asian countries like China and Vietnam.
Even with Africa seemingly being at the helm of this illegal network of pangolin trade, some African governments who were part of CITES CoP 17 pangolin uplisting efforts are stepping up their conservation efforts, enforcement, and prosecution, as Olonyi puts it.
“Namibia, Kenya, Tanzania, Botswana, and Uganda have achieved some levels of success in general conservation and protection of pangolins. More pangolin range states like Nigeria and Cameroon continue battling to improve enforcement and prosecution, especially considering their domestic challenges with ongoing pangolin meat trade. Most seizures at ports in Asia are composed of African pangolin scales, meaning that the meat is consumed within the African source countries and scales consolidated for smuggling to Asia. Internationally, African governments were at the forefront of efforts to ban international pangolin trade through the Appendix I listing. The legal frameworks have since improved with most countries enacting stiff penalties for pangolin-related wildlife crimes.”
In Kenya for instance, the penalties for wildlife crimes touching on critically endangered or endangered species such as pangolins, or any other species listed under CITES Appendix 1 or listed as endangered under Kenyan wildlife laws are stringent as is shown in the table below:
As China cracks down on the illegal trafficking, surviving pangolins are sent to rescue centres. According to The Guardian, about 19,000 wildlife farms were closed down in the wake of COVID-19.
However, the United States Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) has failed to list 7 species of pangolins as endangered species under the Endangered Species Act (ESA). This is despite the fact that the petition for the listing was made by some US conservation groups in 2015. As a result, in January 2020, the conservation groups sued the USFWS and the US Department of the Interior for failing to respond to their petition.
Should pangolins be hunted to extinction, Olonyi is of the opinion that Africans actually stand to lose something important.
“There will definitely be ecological/environmental effects as a result of the loss of this species, as is true with the loss of any species. For example, insects that pangolins feed on will have lost a predator and may reproduce in larger numbers and upset the ecological balance.”
Olonyi also points to keratin, the substance that makes up pangolins scales, and rhino horn, which makes them attractive to traders.
“If you observe closely, there’s a strand that links two of the most endangered and poached species (pangolins and rhinos) which also have large underground markets in parts of Asia. They are both poached mainly for their body parts that contain keratin and are used in traditional ‘medicines’ or for ornaments. Pangolins are poached for their scales and rhinos for their horn. Keratin is simply the same substance that makes up human hair and nails and there is no proof of its medicinal value. Who knows, if God forbid, pangolins go extinct then the next highest producer of keratin-based byproducts, could be the target for heightened poaching and trafficking? The two unique species with keratin body parts are found in Africa. Africa’s natural resources have historically been plundered and looted and it’s time for that trend to stop.”
Though research is ongoing to determine whether the pangolin really is the intermediary host for COVID-19, it is evident that there is still an unsavoury appetite for this fascinating creature that could lead to its extinction.
This story was supported by Code for Africa’s WanaData program and the Pulitzer Center.
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